Every time I read John 3:1-17 two things come up for me (and this will surely prove to you that I grew up in the south).
The first thing that comes to mind is John 3:16...not the actual scripture passage, just the image of “John 3:16” on a poster board being held up at sporting events...primarily wrestling and monster truck rallies. For a long time I thought that perhaps John was the name of one of the wrestlers or truck drivers and that 3:16 was his birthday or some other important date in his life. Then when someone told me John 3:16 was from the Bible I wondered...what could the Bible possibly have to do with Hulk Hogan or the giant truck known as “Gravedigger”? Was there some kind of biblical reference to headlocks that I was unaware of? When I found out what John 3:16 actually said “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” I became really confused. What on earth does this piece of scripture have to do with the fine art of professional, televised wrestling, and the roar of engines at the coliseum? To tell you the truth, I still don’t know...if you know, please, please tell me on your way out today so that I can stop losing sleep over this issue.
The other thing that this reading makes me think of is my short time attending a Pentecostal Holiness church. To be “born in the spirit” was a somewhat regular event in this tradition. At anytime that you felt that you needed to give yourself to God--again--you could come forward to the railing and kneel down. The pastor or an elder in the church would come over and lay hands on you, you would confess how you needed to turn your life back to Jesus, and boom---you were born in the spirit. Even as a teenager I must have been an Episcopalian in the making because this just somehow didn’t sit right with me. It was a little too rowdy, a little too loud and a little too public.
I think I’m like Nicodemus from the Gospel. I don’t quite get all that Jesus is trying to teach me, and I’m asking lots of questions. So what do we know about Nicodemus?
He shows up three times in the Gospel of John. The account from chapter 3 is the first time he comes on the scene, and then we’ll see him again in chapter 7 when he will intercede on Jesus’s behalf with the other Pharisees, and then finally in chapter 19 when he and Joseph of Arimathea come with spices to prepare Jesus’s body for burial.
We also know that he is a Pharisee, which means he is a teacher of the torah, and he is a member of the ruling elite, the Sanhedrin. He would have been revered by his community as someone in power and someone knowledgeable about Jewish law and customs. And yet, he is curious about Jesus. He has obviously observed some of the healings Jesus has performed, and perhaps he heard him speak to a crowd. But as a “disciple” he is on the margins...he only visits with Jesus at night, which means he hasn’t made his curiosity public.
Nicodemus has successfully compartmentalized his public and private life. The Temple is public...he serves as a teacher and leader. But his curiosity about Jesus is private. A moment ago, I told you that I feel like Nicodemus...I too have compartmentalized my life. There’s church life...what I do during the week, who I visit, committee meetings, worship preparation, and other responsibilities, and then there’s home life...cleaning the house, my relationships with Matt, friends and family, and my studies. I’ve gotten quite good at compartmentalizing my life because it’s a way of maintaining control, it’s a way of prioritizing my responsibilities, and it’s a way of protecting my public and private lives. I would be willing to guess that many of you compartmentalize your lives...you keep work and home separate in order to pay proper attention to both without blurring the boundaries.
But what happens when our faith becomes compartmentalized? What happens when our relationship with God is only about what happens when we come through the doors on Sunday? Are we truly engaged with our faith then, or are we, like Nicodemus, on the margins as a follower of Jesus?
Please understand that this is not an indictment; this is not a guilt trip in the making. And neither is Jesus’s responses to Nicodemus’s questions about being born in the Spirit. When Jesus and Nicodemus have this interesting conversation, Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to revisit his faith. He is inviting Nicodemus to really let God into his life, to be a full participant instead of just observing from the margins.
This invitation is for us too. The invitation to let God in, to become a full participant in the body of Christ, is to accept the complex, complicated life of faith that does not always fit into compartments. The invitation can be scary because it means allowing our faith to be public instead of private, to sometimes be rowdy and a little too loud. It means standing up for someone when it’s easier to be quiet. It means loving the unlovable. It means being vulnerable in a world that says vulnerability is weakness. But the invitation is also wonderful because God loves us...so much that God became incarnate to be with us...fully human, sharing our joys and sorrows, our pain and our laughter.
So this morning I ask you to consider if you’re ready to be born anew in the Spirit, accepting God’s invitation to get to work in your life. May this Lenten season be an opportunity for you to get a little bit rowdy with Jesus.
Well, I have already failed. To be honest, I didn’t really set myself up for success. On Tuesday I became increasingly aware that I had not decided on my Lenten discipline. I could resort to the old standby’s…no chocolate, no meat, no wine…but the truth of the matter is none of those really were that important to me…well, except the chocolate...I just couldn’t deny myself those last few Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. And then I thought I would try to work my way through the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s list of 40 ideas for Lent, but then I didn’t adhere to day 2…walk, bike, carpool or bus to work. Then I decided I wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t “necessary” and minutes later I ordered a couple of DVDs off Amazon. On Wednesday, just moments after receiving and distributing ashes, having just said the confessional words “For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us” I was screaming at my computer screen because my classmates had not made their first weekly post yet and I hated them for it. Not only have I failed so early into the Lenten season, but I felt like there was no chance to succeed. Where am I supposed to go from here?
Then I read somewhere (and I’ve looked everywhere to find the exact book or website that I read this), that we aren’t supposed to be able to fast for 40 days like Jesus did without some kind of struggle. It is our human nature, one that is full of fear, power struggles, self-involvement, pride and apathy that keeps us from being able to resist temptation. Jesus didn’t have the same problems that we do, which is why he’s able to say no to those temptations offered by the devil in Matthew. However, our human nature should not be used as an excuse to hide behind…even when we fail, we keep walking in the wilderness with Jesus during these 40 days so that we can reflect on and acknowledge the ways in which we have separated ourselves from God and one another. In other words, we mess it up, we confess it, and we keep going.
In the reading from Genesis, we have the first temptation and the first failure…Adam and Eve are seduced by the serpent and the knowledge of good and evil. Like each of us, they succumb to temptation because it’s exactly that…temptation. The tree and the fruit are beautiful, the opportunity for knowledge and power is great. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with beauty, knowledge and power, the desire for these things ultimately led to failure for the original plan. Yet, God is good and gracious…instead of death, there is life…perhaps not the intended life, but life none the less. And there is a chance for redemption.
In Matthew, we see that the hope for redemption is Jesus…his ability to refuse temptation and give all of us new life in a more fulfilling way. The temptations that Jesus is presented with are all about self-involved love of worldly goods and power…how easy it would have been for him to say yes to any of these. Yet, he says no. His “no” is divine forgiveness for us. His “no” provides us the opportunity to be happy when our transgressions are forgiven. His “no” helps us to be able to offer up our confessions and truly seek repentance.
And so I think perhaps this Lent I will worry less about Thin Mints and checking off lists of practices. I think I’d much rather spend time in prayer and reflection about the gift of forgiveness, about the desire to be free from self-involvement, and then be happy, like the psalmist, that I have made my confession and seek new beginnings.
May this season of Lent be a blessing for you as you reflect on and practice forgiveness, repentance and prayer. God is good and there is always hope for redemption.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Pastor Earl, invited me to come speak at the church dinner. I asked him what he wanted me to talk about...I didn’t really think I had anything to offer that would be all that interesting to a Methodist congregation. He said, “oh, you know, whatever...you could talk about your PhD work”. “Really? You want me to talk about pre-neolitic goddess and how they were the first in a long line of images of the divine feminine, which evolved into the Virgin Mary in the Christian tradition?” Earl’s response to me was “what else you got”.
So on Wednesday night, I packed up my laptop and headed over to White Salmon United Methodist church for dinner and discussion. To be honest, I still didn’t really know what I would be talking about, but the phrase “God was present” kept coming up for me.
What I ended up sharing with Pastor Earl and those who attended were the times when in the midst of chaos and confusion, in the midst of unlikely success, in the midst of grief, in the midst of the messy, crazy and wonderful life that I’ve had so far, God was present.
I told stories about my work in Sacramento at St. Matthew’s where those who had formerly been clients of the clothes closet now served as volunteers. I told stories about handing out sack lunches to day laborers in San Juan Capistrano. I told stories of making egg salad for the Warming Shelter and praying for the guests and volunteers. I told stories of being in the hospital with moms who had gone into delivery too soon and their children had not survived. In all these moments, and so many more, God was present. God was there in the faces of the most unlikely people. God was there to hear prayers and offer comfort. God was there to celebrate the joy of healing and restoration.
In the readings from today, we hear about how God is present in the lives of Moses and the disciples. In Exodus, God is up on the mountain, and calls to Moses to come up and spend time on Holy Ground. In Matthew, God is also up on the mountain, and the disciples and Jesus go to pray, to be restored, to experience the holy. In the biblical text, the mountain is a holy place and you know that there you can commune with God.
Perhaps this is why I am so drawn to living near mountains. Perhaps I’ve been waiting for God to call me up to Holy Ground.
But here’s the part that we can’t forget...and truly, it’s probably the most important part of both these stories from the Bible. You can’t stay up on the mountain forever! I’m not really sure that God wants us to overstay our welcome! In both stories, we know that eventually Moses, Jesus and the disciples come back down the mountain...they have work to do, people to see and places to go. And part of that work is to help others realize that in the midst of their every day living, God is present.
When Peter, James and John went up that mountain, they had been told about the upcoming journey to Jerusalem and the imminent death of their friend Jesus. I can only imagine that they were filled with fear, anxiety, confusion and grief. In their sadness, they would rather stay up on the mountain and experience the glory of God. But they are compelled to go back down the mountain, experience heartache, and wait...knowing that somehow in all this mess, God is present. (Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz)
Today we will say the last of the Alleluia’s for a while. On Wednesday, we will be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And next Sunday we will enter into a new liturgical season...preparing for the imminent death of our friend, Jesus. It would be really easy to retreat, to want to stay in that happy place of God’s glory on the mountain. But we have work to do as disciples...we have to help people experience the abiding presence of God in their lives. And God will be there.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.